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Saturday, May 4, 2019

Yakuza Wolf: I Perform Murder (1972) review


Sonny Chiba (Gosuke Himuro), Koji Nanbara (Izumi Shojiro), Ryoji Hayama (Ishiguro), Tomoko Mayama (Saeko), Toura Rokusho (Shimaoka Mitsuo), Hideo Murota (Yasuo Onuma) Yayoi Watanabe (Kyoko Himuro), Makoto Sato (Jun Eguchi), Hirohisa Nakata (Tsukahara), Goto Rumi (Izumi Mayako), Kobayashi Akira (Shimizu), Akira Kuji (Yano)

Directed by Ryoichi Takamori

The Short Version: A transitional film in Sonny Chiba's career--going from quirky, comedic cop thrillers to brooding anti-heroes and high-flying Karate fighters. Packed with sex and violence, ample nudity and machine gun battles, YAKUZA WOLF is easily one of the trashiest and bleak films on the JAC founder's resume. Chiba's vengeance-seeking assassin definitely does a lot of killing in what amounts to a modern day samurai western modeled on Kurosawa's YOJIMBO (1961) and Corbucci's Kurosawa influenced DJANGO (1966). Sleaziness aside, director Takamori adds some artistic flourishes and a Euro-western aesthetic to his Yakuza wasteland. Highly recommended for fans of classy looking Japanese trash movies and those wondering what Sonny Chiba would be like playing the strong, murderously silent type.

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity***

Gosuke Himuro returns to Japan from Okinawa to settle things with the Yakuza gangs responsible for his father's death and the selling of his sister into prostitution. Pitting the various factions against one another, Gosuke silently slashes his way to get to Izumi, the big man running the syndicate. Meanwhile, Detective Shimaoka wishes to smash the gangs and makes a deal with Gosuke, allowing him to have his revenge.

The samurai film and the Italian western influenced one another in their respective genres. One of the most famous examples being Sergio Leone adapting Akira Kurosawa's YOJIMBO (1961) into A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). Another Italian western director inspired by the Japanese who subsequently left his mark on them was Sergio Corbucci; his two most indelible pictures on Far Easterns are DJANGO (1966) and THE GREAT SILENCE (1967). DJANGO (itself influenced by YOJIMBO) and the Kurosawa-affected FISTFUL were clearly inspirations for Ryoichi Takamori's stylish, demoralized crime thriller.

Director Takamori worked with Chiba on a variety of television programs and movies; one of the most famous being Chiba's big breakout on the popular KEY HUNTER (1968-1973) series. On the big screen, he guided Chiba through two of the four YAKUZA DEKA pictures; those being YAKUZA DEKA 3: POISON GAS THREAT and YAKUZA DEKA 4: NO GRAVE FOR US (both 1971). In 1973, Takamori would get experience directing JAC's founder in two Karate movies, BODYGUARD FANG (BODYGUARD KIBA) and BODYGUARD FANG: DEADLY TRIANGLE. In between these cops and Karate films, Takamori and screenwriter Konami Fumio put Sonny Chiba in a role that was darker, more violent than anything he'd done up to that time. 

Sonny Chiba's Gosuke Himuro is akin to the Underworld's Grim Reaper. Virtually untouchable till the last 30 minutes, he's humanized when--in a nod to DJANGO's coffin dragging avenger--Gosuke's hands are smashed by two separate villains in two separate scenes. At the end, during the settling of accounts, Gosuke's ingenuity returns the use of his hands by utilizing a steering wheel and a tire for a gun mount to take out Izumi and his gang. In another ode to Corbucci, a gangster ambushes his enemies by firing a machine gun from inside a coffin. 

Overall, this is one of the man's most provocative roles; and one you scarcely hear anything about. While Chiba's best cinematic representations to international audiences showcase him mercilessly mugging for the camera as deranged Karate fighters, he does none of that in YAKUZA WOLF; he shows zero emotion of any kind. It's an extraordinary role for the actor and one that needs more exposure.

Konami Fumio's script has a few too many characters than necessary and only 90 minutes to explore them all. One of the best his script has to offer is Saeko, a prostitute that falls in love with Gosuke. She leaves that world behind in the hopes he will do the same; but just when she's enjoying her transformation into Suzy Homemaker, she realizes Gosuke must see his vendetta to the end. Saeko's character doesn't come into full bloom as it should since the exploitation and exposition can't coexist equally. The same thing befalls some of the other characters. Since the unsavory elements dominate, the few instances of poignancy gives the impression Takamori's movie and Konami's script wants to be more than it actually is.

Konami also lent his pen to the FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION series--the first of which debuted in August of 1972, seven months after Chiba's dark gangster epic. Like the first two installments of that series, YAKUZA WOLF contains some of those films' style in its color palette and camera placement. It's a strange blend of artistry and trash.

One such instance where art intersects with sordidness occurs when Gosuke finally locates his sister. Sneaking into the sex den she's being forced to sell her body in, he witnesses a mass orgy where drugged-out participants engage in group sex while others indulge in sexual sadism with knives. The years of drugs and sexual degradation having taken their toll, Kyoko doesn't even recognize her brother--believing he's just another customer. In a powerful moment that may raise some eyebrows, Chiba, shortly after saving his drug-addled sister, basically gives up on trying to bring her back to sanity and lets her go off on her own; only moments later she's hit by a car! 

If you've seen Chiba's two EXECUTIONER movies you'll recognize Makoto Sato. As Jun Eguchi, he's a rival gangster who, like Gosuke, desires vengeance against Izumi and his powerful crime syndicate. These two have the most complicated character arc in the movie. Actually, another villain in the movie played by Akira Kobayashi has the same relationship with Gosuke as Sato's character does; both are Gosuke's enemies; both bust up one of his hands; and both characters could've been combined or simply not included at all. 

A former Toho actor, Sato signed with Toei in 1970. This was Sato's first of several works with Sonny Chiba. Obayashi Nobuhiko, a director of TV commercials who made his film directing debut with the delirious cult favorite HOUSE in 1977, referred to Makoto Sato as the Japanese Charles Bronson. Incidentally, Obayashi directed Bronson in the famous 'Mandom' television ads beginning in 1970; Bronson being the first American actor to appear in Japanese TV commercials. Sato and his stone-faced features can also be found in Chiba pictures like THE KILLING MACHINE (1975), MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978), and SHOGUN'S NINJA (1980).

There are two films in the YAKUZA WOLF series, both released in 1972. Ryoichi Takamori did not return as director for YAKUZA WOLF: EXTEND MY CONDOLENCES (1972). Directed by Buichi Saito (LONE WOLF AND CUB: BABY CART IN PERIL), the tone of that film strangely reverts back to the comic cop shenanigans of Chiba's earlier YAKUZA DEKA series.

As would be the case in many of Chiba's Karate pictures (particularly those of Kazuhiko Yamaguchi), the camera does all sorts of gymnastics during some of the action sequences. Thankfully, Nakao Yoshio creates some stylish compositions for Takamori's modern day samurai western--capturing images of a concrete wasteland standing in for a desert landscape.

With its high level of brutality and dedication to Italian western conventions, YAKUZA WOLF (1972) is an unusual, standout entry on Chiba's voluminous resume. Other than a western photo shoot, this is the only time the actor has portrayed such a role. It's not as gory as his splattery Karate pictures, but is worth hunting down for those seeking something wildly uncultured and stylistically sleazy.

Running time: 01:27:42

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